If I may channel the late, great Estelle Getty for a moment: picture it, Provincetown, 2009, a dashing young man with no discernible tan and an iffy T-Mobile signal languishes bored upon the sprawling patio of the Boatslip Resort. It’s the middle of July (Bear Week, to be precise), and he is surrounded by a dense crowd of large, bearded, scantily trunked men — all of whom are more tan, and most of whom are tapping away at iPhones, carefully shielding their screens from the hard noon sun with the brims of their caps. To talk to them, technically, would count as interrupting.
In the context of Bear Week — that is, in the context of a relatively confined week-long hedonistic blur of 2000-plus horned-up, hirsute gay men full of planter’s punch and deep-fried beach snacks — the swift advent of Grindr seemed a little . . . redundant. The app — a mobile GPS-based social-networking application for gay men with iPhones (and, as such, a quite literal manifestation of gaydar) — had only appeared on virtual–App Store shelves a few months before, but the implications of its functionality were sweeping faster than MRSA: suddenly, not only could you find out who around you was gay, you could learn what exactly they were into, see what they (or important parts of them) looked like, and detect precisely how far away from you they were. In the great non-gay yonder, this kind of technology is tantamount to having some sort of magic sex compass, or a special cruising telescope. On the Boatslip patio, it seemed more like a magnifying glass through which to peer in at the smaller details of those who surround you; that is, it really just seemed like more Internet dating.
That young, slightly irritated man was me (imagine!), and since I’m still on T-Mobile, one year later I remain largely behind the Grindr curve — though it has really grown out of its hyped-up novelty and into something more like a cultural trajectory. Despite being limited to iPhone users, and even as a small cluster of hopeful but chronically underused imitators like Purpl, West Fourth, and Encountr attempt to chip into its share of mobile, horny dudes, Grindr is celebrating more than 700,000 users — with one third of them spending up to an hour a day on it.
When Grindr foundr (sorry) Joel Simkhai tells me this, that single-hour metric strikes me as low. I’ve witnessed the addictive effects of Grindr firsthand, and they’re nothing to underestimate — they certainly gobble up more than an hour. Grindr provides a quick, easy way to identify tops in your hotel, or bottoms in your office; to make an airport layover more interesting; or to cause a thousand men on a groaning patio never to meet each other because the signal sucks.
Simkhai, a Tufts alum and self-described “child of AOL chat rooms,” is no stranger to the still-ripening realm of online dating and, like many other gays, grew up repeatedly haunted by one question: “Is that guy gay?”